There has been, for the last little while, a lot of talk about aphantasia and degrees to which people “see” things, mentally, and whether it hinders or helps the creative process.
Quite a few writers seem startled by the idea that people don’t have very clear mental images. But a surprising number of illustrators seem to be in just that situation. Since they’re both in the business of inserting stories into other people’s heads, the difference is intriguing.
Moving away from strict aphantasia, I’m interested in how much visualisation is functional/trained (setting aside whether a given reader has accumulated enough of a visual library — my littlest nephew doesn’t have enough of a framework for what a “dragon” is to be interested in stories about them yet, and growing up without TV or computers, I didn’t get cyberpunk as a thing until I saw The Matrix).
If I do the exercise above, cold, or if I’m reading as a reader, I’m a 1. If I’m in the process of writing, it drops down a few notches — sometimes it will be a 3, sometimes the word “apple” will appear in my mind or on the page and then I have to consciously stop and push it back along the scale until I can ‘see’ and describe it more specifically.
But if I’m illustrating, I’m closer to a 5, and often don’t see the picture until it’s on the page. Lynda Barry talks about that process of drawing as discovery rather than expression. Even (or especially) drawing from life is a process of getting the image from the world onto the page through hand and pencil. And most ‘visualisation’ of solutions is more schematic/word-based.
I mentioned above reading as a reader. A book can be as vivid as a movie, then. But when I’m reading as an illustrator, looking for images to draw, ideally I’m sketching them as I go, converting directly from words into shape and movement without necessarily picturing that inside my own head.
When I do picture things too clearly, it’s a trap. The disparity between the imagination and the reality can be distressing!This is one of the reasons I don’t often illustrate my own work (I had to get at the illustrations in Flyaway by starting more decoratively and then pushing back into the text).
Although art and writing both come from the same storytelling aquifer, they reach the world through different wells. If I’m going to develop an illustrated piece of my own, I usually have to start with art and support it with words, and/or carve away the words until they don’t distract me from what the art is getting up to.